More than perhaps any other president in our nation’s history, Joe Biden has expressed, through both word and action, his intention to treat climate change as the global crisis it truly is. And while so many scientists like myself are poised to continue this fight within our own spheres of influence — be they scientific, academic or social — we urgently need a leader to drive climate change mitigation at the national, political level. This is where we need Biden.
For dangerously long now, our country has lacked direction in this arena, leaving Americans exposed to the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change-related events. Over the last year alone, we have seen record heat waves, extraordinary wildfires, numerous tropical storms, strong hurricanes and extensive flooding. The Red Cross is now saying that climate change is much more dangerous to humanity than the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that there will never be a vaccine for climate change. Despite all this, the national government has failed to address the root causes of these disasters adequately.
This apathy is not neutral, it is actively damaging to our planet and its inhabitants. We are running out of time as we’ve waited for a political leader whose rhetoric reflects the severity of the climate crisis, much less one who’s met their rhetoric with action. It is still uncommon to hear the term “climate emergency” used among policymakers, even though we scientists use the term intentionally to accurately describe the crisis now facing humanity. It is crucial that the Biden administration’s language reflects the severity of this crisis as well. It is the first step on the long road of action before us.
I am the lead author of “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which nearly 14,000 scientists from 156 countries have signed. Many of these signatories are members of the Alliance of World Scientists. In this paper, we propose six transformative steps for climate mitigation (recently discussed by thought leaders) and detail the “moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to tell it like it is.” We chose the term “climate emergency” because language is important in both science and policy.
The climate emergency already drives conflicts and suffering globally, and we are not alone in demanding an equally urgent response. To date, 1,864 jurisdictions around the world have issued climate emergency declarations covering more than 820 million people in 33 countries. In 2019, the European Union declared a climate emergency. Recently, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged all nations to follow suit. Now I am asking that we act accordingly.
Much like America’s own government, climate change is an issue of the people. And while Biden must take the lead in moving our country toward a solution, he need not act alone politically. Members of both the House and the Senate have already introduced resolutions declaring a “climate emergency.” I urge president Biden to join the 103 House and eight Senate co-sponsors to take action and support these efforts. I realize that a congressional resolution might be difficult given ongoing party conflicts and stalemates. In this case, Biden must move forward regardless. For example, he could ensure the protection of natural ecosystems that sequester large amounts of carbon such as Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
If Congress is unwilling to appropriate funds for massive climate-mitigation action, Biden should swiftly proceed using his executive powers. While bipartisanship is ideal, time is now of the essence for our planet. If the president were to issue an executive order declaring a national climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act, this would allow the use of military funds to rapidly move our nation toward renewable energy.
Although likely delayed by court battles, Biden could also reinstate the oil export ban or start to phase out offshore drilling. This could be accompanied by building the climate-friendly infrastructure that would create some of the high-paying jobs he has promised. While I imagine bypassing Congress has drawbacks of its own, I am sure that prompt presidential action is essential in this situation. In my view, there has perhaps never been a more urgent national emergency than climate change. The climate crisis is a threat to our security at both the national and international levels; these threats certainly warrant the use of the wide-ranging powers afforded by the National Emergencies Act. I am confident that Biden will triumph in the courts, if challenged, given that former President Trump prevailed in the Supreme Court in declaring a national emergency for a more polarizing and less urgent border wall.
The scientific community is counting on President Biden — his newfound leadership of our country demands action, no matter the route. Immediately upon taking office, he boldly penned executive orders rejoining the Paris climate accord and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. Now that he is in a position to embrace this power in a context-setting way, I implore him to use the term “climate emergency” whenever he speaks of the climate crisis; it is the only way to adequately convey our reality. Even using the term whenever addressing his climate-change plans would be a huge step forward. As president, his language, actions and leadership over the coming years will be critical to tackling the climate emergency to save ourselves and ensure a brighter future for America and all of humanity.